Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Alimony Definition:

An amount given to one spouse from another while they are separated.

Related Terms: Spousal Support

Synonymous with spousal support.

An amount of money intended to support a separated spouse while she or he becomes economically self-sufficient.

It has become, in some cases, a sort of pension that presumes a financial disability, where the more financially independent spouse pays money to the less financially independent spouse, for either a lengthy period of time or until the payor or the recipient (payee) spouse dies.

In a 1914 Canadian case known as Hogg v Hogg, these words:

"Alimony is not maintenance to the child, but to the wife."


The concept of alimony has been around since Hammurabi's Code (circa 1780 BC):

"If a man wish to separate from a woman who has borne him children, ... then he shall give that wife her dowry, and a part of the usufruct of field, garden, and property, so that she can rear her children. When she has brought up her children, a portion of all that is given to the children, equal as that of one son, shall be given to her. She may then marry the man of her heart.

"If a man wishes to separate from his wife who has borne him no children, he shall give her the amount of her purchase money and the dowry which she brought from her father's house, and let her go."

More recently, in common law:

"Absent a settled trust, a wife could obtain provision for her maintenance only from the courts ecclesiastical. The jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts with regard to alimony was the subject of comment by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Lyndhurst, in Stones v. Cooke (1835): 'Alimony is the proper and exclusive subject for discussion in the Ecclesiastical Court. It is the province of that Court to determine what ought to be its amount, for how long it is to be granted, and what operates to discharge it.'

"It was also within the province of the ecclesiastical courts to determine in what circumstances it was payable.

"Alimony was not a married woman's right on separation from her husband. It was awarded only where she was justified in living separate from him. A married woman might justify her separation by proof of her husband's cruelty or his adultery. Otherwise, a husband whose wife had left him was not obliged to pay her maintenance. Indeed, he might obtain a decree for the restitution of his conjugal rights, a decree which the wife might disobey only at the risk of imprisonment.

"Alimony was defined by Blackstone (as an) allowance, which is made to a woman for her support out of the husband's estate: being settled at the discretion of the ecclesiastical judge, on consideration of all the circumstances of the case.

"In its original concept, therefore, alimony was a charge on property. It would be unusual for alimony settled in this fashion to fall into arrears."

"By the beginning of the 19th century, however, alimony was not always secured by a charge on property. There are cases in which the payment of a periodic sum without a charge was ordered."1

Thus, later, alimony came to mean monies paid while spouses were legally separated but stilled wedlocked.

Where they were divorced, the monies payable were then referred to as maintenance but this distinction is now mostly in disuse, the preference being to the generic term of spousal support.

In popular culture, this legal term was referred to by Led Zeppelin in their song Living Loving Maid (Led Zeppelin II) where, in lyrics apparently referring to a female groupie who, presumably, was positioning herself for support:
"With a purple umbrella and a fifty cent hat,
Livin', lovin', she's just a woman.
Missus cool rides out in her aged Cadillac.
Livin', lovin', she's just a woman.

"Come on, babe on the round about, ride on the merry-go-round,
We all know what your name is, so you better lay your money down.

Alimony, alimony payin' your bills,
Livin', lovin', she's just a woman."

Or P. G. Wodehouse's controversial comment:

"Judges ... display, in the matter of arranging alimony, that reckless generosity which is found only in men who are giving away someone else's cash."

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